Paul Risker chats with Hell on Wheels actor Colm Meaney…
Actor Colm Meaney who brings Dr. Thomas Clarke Durant (1820-1885), Vice President of the Union Pacific Railroad during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad to life in AMC’s Hell On Wheels, exclaims enthusiastically: “Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons for doing the show.” The source of Meaney’s passionate exclamation followed a summation during the course of our conversation that if there is a reason for a group of storytellers to invest time on an expansive and still ongoing creative project such as Hell On Wheels, then it is that interaction with the past to recreate the birth of modern America for a contemporary audience.
A veteran film and television actor, Hell On Wheels forms a fitting contrast to Meaney’s sci-fi work on the Star Trek series’ The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine series’. It creates an historical and futuristic set of bookends for a career comprised of an eclectic series of roles across film and television. Meaney frequently exhibits an ability to command the unsympathetic to the sympathetic; the unlikeable to the likeable performance range that underpins his onscreen versatility. He’s an actor whose eyes have become rich with a multitude of identities and knows how to use his physical presence and voice to make himself at home in a variety of narratives and genres.
In a short conversation with Flickering Myth, Meaney discussed the impact of creative form on his process, the encounter with history and the responsibilities of bringing the past to life for a contemporary audience.
Paul Risker: Having worked in both film and television, how does the long versus the short form impact the process in your approach to a character?
Colm Meaney: Well I think there are a lot of similarities between episodic TV and especially when you are working for a cable station as with this [AMC], where they give you a bit of time, then it is very similar to independent filmmaking. Schedule wise you are shooting anywhere from five to seven or eight pages a day, and that’s pretty much the schedule for an independent film. The difference would be if you were doing a major studio picture such as a major action film where you spent three days on one stunt, which is a half a page. So I have to say as an actor I like the pace of television and I like the pace of independent film. I like to move; I don’t like hanging around too much.
PR: When I spoke with Enzo Cilenti about the period series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell he explained: “The first thing I feel I need to address when I do any period piece is how to ignore period detail so that I don’t start playing that as opposed to the scene itself.” Playing Durant in the 1860s set Hell on Wheels, what are your feelings towards confronting period detail?
CM: Actors need help, and when you are doing a period piece you rely even more so on good writing. It is very important to have it, and this is where when I read the pilot of Hell on Wheels I was seriously impressed, because apart from it being very interesting with great characters and a great story, I also felt that the writers had captured vocabulary and the dialogue of the period very well. It felt like you were in the 1860s when you spoke. So I think that is hugely important and it is something that you don’t see a lot of in modern writing – a character with a really good vocabulary. So for me one of the great keys to Durant was in the pilot episode of the show when he had that very long monologue about building the railroad and what it would take; the kind of people it would take to build it and what it was going to be like. He articulated it beautifully and I felt not only what was going to happen in the story, but also the period of time it was set, and he established that.
PR: Playing Durant offers you an opportunity to encounter history in such an interactive way. This must surely be one of the great appeals of storytelling of this kind – the intimate interaction with characters and history?
CM: I feel it is important to tell the stories for the story, and I feel it is important to remember these things. We also tried to use the historical story as a reference to the present in terms of what for example the railroad did, which was to open up the country for industrialisation. This immediately led to pollution of all the native lands; the buffalo were destroyed and the effect that it had on the environment is still ongoing. The effect it had on the native peoples is still ongoing and the kind of corruption in government, and the pride of public partnerships that this engendered is still ongoing. All of those issues are still relevant and so it is very useful and interesting to explore them in relation to historical events.
PR: Our perception of history has been shaped through entertainment, specifically film, television and literature. Does this bring with it a certain responsibility as storytellers to try and find that balance between historical authenticity and a good entertaining yarn?
CM: Absolutely! I think it is a big responsibility and you try to find a balance. But I think to air on the side of accuracy and good judgement is probably more important than necessarily finding the entertainment, although other people would argue [laughs] that you are never going to find an audience that way. I would argue that it is important to get it right. But I do think it is a big responsibility and it is a wonderful responsibility to take on to be able to tell these stories. One of my favorite films of all time is Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), which tells the story while taking a political position, and it does it in the most magnificent way. It’s a magnificent achievement as a film, as a piece of work, but it is also a great achievement as a historical document.
PR: When you first started work on the project how familiar were you with Durant and the story itself of the railroad, and how have the past four seasons of the show shaped your knowledge of this time?
CM: Yeah, well I wasn’t familiar with Durant at all. The first time I heard Durant’s name was when I read the script. From reading U.S history I was vaguely familiar with Huntington, Stanford and Hartford – the original railway barons. But Durant was new to me. He’s kind of the forgotten one who because he ended up losing it all and he didn’t create a wealthy dynasty and he died in poverty I guess he’s been written off by history. It has been a great process learning about him; both the character and his story.
Many thanks to Colm Meaney for taking the time for this interview.
Hell On Wheels The Complete Fourth Season is released on DVD on August 17th 2015 from Entertainment One UK
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Film International, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.